- Must I Be Womanist?
Early Influences: Black Feminist and Womanist
I'm a black female religious scholar, but I'm not sure I'm a womanist. I was a black feminist before I heard of "womanist." I discovered black feminists in college when studying the black arts movements of the 1970s. I identified black feminism with the 1970s—black power, poetry, literature, and defiance. In my eyes, black feminists were radical, fire-eating, justice-loving, law-defying women. Later in my college career, I came to the term womanist through literature. While writing a paper on Their Eyes Were Watching God, I read Alice Walker's essays about recovering Zora Neale Hurston. I appreciated and related to Walker's quest for a role model: "I write all the things I should have been able to read."1
I later learned of the womanist movement in religious scholarship. While looking for religious themes in black women's writings, I came across Katie G. Cannon's Black Womanist Ethics (1988).2 It was the first time I read about black women's literature from the perspective of a religious scholar. As a result of Cannon's work and that of other womanists, I never once doubted that I could have a place in religious scholarship. I never felt the pain that no one was talking about my experience, my literature, or my role models. I know that the first [End Page 85] generation of womanist religious scholars worked hard to create a world where a young woman could have this kind of experience. They gave me the experience they wanted to have; the experience they should have been able to have. For this, I am grateful beyond words, and I think of them as my godmothers. They mothered me into the academic study of God.
As I have met the women whose work I read, I know them as more than writers and scholars. They are passionate people of faith, dedicated teachers, gentle and encouraging mentors, and weary but joyful trailblazers. I can't imagine what kind of scholar I would be, what kind of woman I would be, if I had not encountered Walker, Cannon, and Renita Weems, and encountered them before William Faulkner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Walter Brueggemann.
I tell these stories as more than personal narrative. I believe that I am one of a number of black female scholars who do not know the world or the discipline of religious studies without the influence of feminist and womanist religious scholarship. I question my identity as womanist because I've also been shaped by black feminists, and I believe that I'm part of a generation of women who have grown up (intellectually) during a time that takes womanism as a given.
Not a Womanist: Critiques and Black Feminist Leanings
I'm not sure I'm a womanist. In her definition, Walker describes womanist as "a black feminist or feminist of color."3 But I've long sensed a difference between the two—or at least in the way the two movements have developed. There are those who identify specifically as "womanist": Cannon, Delores Williams, Emilie Townes, and Jacquelyn Grant. And there are some people who call themselves "black feminist" but not "womanist": Angela Davis, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Barbara Smith. I haven't been able to put my finger on the precise nature of this difference, but I have some intimations.
When I read Walker's definition, I feel at home, but the trajectory of womanist religious scholarship has left me in a house without enough furniture. There are not enough chairs, couches, or beds for me or many of the black women I know and love. It isn't a place where we can be who we are in some of the most important ways we live—sexually, spiritually, or politically. I've been dissatisfied by the heteronormativity of womanist religious scholarship. Walker clearly states that a womanist "loves other women sexually and/or nonsexually." I think it no coincidence that Walker references sexual love before nonsexual love, and that this phrase falls before her reference to loving men. Walker...